Opinion

Robots can reboot our careers and the economy

Peter Gartenberg | Updated on March 11, 2021

Earlier in the 20th Century, robotics revolution increased productivity up to fifty times

In the past few months, concerns about the pandemic’s economic impact have increased, and in no small part compounded by incendiary news headlines. Recently, news outlets globally – including India’s, reported that robots will eliminate 85 million jobs at mid-sized to large businesses in the next five years as Covid-19 accelerates changes in the workplace, citing a World Economic Forum (WEF) research study published in October.

In truth, robots and automation coming for our jobs is not just a modern concern. Earlier in the 20th Century, robotics revolution increased productivity up to fifty times. This meant that by the year 2000, one single manufacturing employee was accomplishing what used to be the work of 50 people. Conventional wisdom again tells us that automation would therefore steal 49 out of 50 jobs.

However, I believe that there is a long-term, positive case for automation and its transformative potential across all sorts of business. In India, for instance, you only have to look at automation in manufacturing, where has helped to create a US$3.5 billion sector and 90 million new jobs in 2020.

What was true of manufacturing in the last century is now becoming true for services, and it is important for us to go beyond the headlines to consider more optimistically how automation will impact businesses.

Can digital workers complement a human workforce

Business, as we know it, is facing a period of exponential change, but that will not make us worse off than before. In reality, global productivity growth has stagnated at one-tenthof what it was 40 years ago for some economies. In India, despite labour productivity growing by a yearly average of 5.23 percent from 1992 to 2019, knowledge workers – anyone whose jobs involve handling or using information, are finding that they have more work than they can handle.

According to Blue Prism’s “The Impact of a Digital Workforce on Business Agility and Survival” research study, 63 per cent of these workers in India said that they were already struggling with workload demands prior to the Covid outbreak. This sentiment was shared by majority (72 per cent) of local business leaders, who felt that their organisations were struggling to meet customer demands due to too much time being spent on administrative tasks.

So, can automation help these knowledge workers and business leaders?

It is expected to be so, especially with 79 per cent of local business leaders believing that automation offers more to the business than just time and cost savings, and that it is essential for their organisations to remain competitive.

In addition, businesses no longer need to have a sophisticated technical team to introduce automation-related capabilities. Instead, even those without a software engineering background can access digital workers to enhance business. These ‘workers’, which are essentially a scalable team of low or no-code software robots, can be trained by any business user, from automating basic tasks like payments processing, through to more complex ones.

With digital workers working alongside knowledge workers to take on excessive, tedious and repeated processes, humans can exercise their creativity, empathy and critical problem-solving ability and focus on more value-adding tasks or projects.

Key to unlocking productivity

What is truly different and driving change now is not the impact of Covid-19 – although that is accelerating some of these - but something evolving beneath the surface that is harder to see. It is comparable to the early days of the internet – when individual computers were suddenly connected. That enabled all sorts of new communication channels and business models.

What is accelerating intelligent automation now is that this technology is interoperable with existing systems. That means that any company can access an extensive toolbox of cutting-edge technologies, such as machine learning algorithms, and can easily deploy them on top of existing systems enabled by digital workers.

An example was an investment bank’s struggle to keep up with the volume of electronic fund transfers that needed to be processed daily. A manual process of humans investigating, verifying and repairing transfers that did not make it through the first time, was time consuming. The fact that fund transfer requests would come in 24/7 also meant that bottlenecks would accumulate when bank staff were ‘off-shift’, leaving the team in perpetual catch up mode during office hours.

By deploying digital workers alongside human workers, the bank managed to increase a payment’s average handling speed by 58 per cent, have intelligent automation handle an average of 7,500 less-sophisticated daily fund transfer repairs, and ‘cover’ 33 per cent of staff tasks during non-work hours – which would have otherwise become the next day’s backlog.

The role of digital workers in countries’ handling of the current pandemic provides evidence of their useful application in healthcare, another often-overworked sector. It’s also been a large differentiating factor in how countries’ healthcare systems have managed the crisis. For example, during Singapore’s drive to contain a spike in infections at foreign worker dormitories earlier this year, its public healthcare system found itself having to perform a significantly higher number of daily Covid-19 tests. More staff then had to be mobilised not just to swab individuals, but to take on the administrative burden of organising and in putting all relevant patient information coming in from numerous hospitals, national specialty centres, and clinics.

By implementing intelligent automation to help its staff update and access patient records across medical and IT systems seamlessly and quickly, NUHS ended up saving more than 18 hours of human labour per day and redeployed these personnel to double-down on frontline patient care.

Communicating automation’s job benefits

Finally, it is time for us to adjust the way we speak about and plan for automation.

Blue Prism’s research study found that 76 per cent of local business leaders and 79 per cent of local knowledge workers said that they appreciate the opportunities that automation will create. Eighty-five per cent of local knowledge workers even said that they are comfortable with the idea of being reskilled for a role change within their organisation. At the same time, however, half of all local knowledge workers indicated that they worry about related job losses in the next three years, despite becoming more comfortable with automation.

More must be done by companies to create a strategic roadmap that defines the type of work humans should do alongside their complementary digital counterparts, and a clear communications plan to engage employees and help them understand specifically how this will improve their work lives and aid career progression. We should never leave uncertainty and imagination to fill in the blanks about the fate of people’s jobs.

Overall, rather than thinking conventionally – that robots will inevitably sink the job market – here are the more ambitious questions for any business: are you using this moment of disruption to think differently about your company, your people and their collective potential? What could your human workers build with extra digital workers at their fingertips? How – especially during these challenging times - could automation uplift industries collectively and help our economy grow?

The author is Managing Director and President, India, Blue Prism

Published on March 11, 2021

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